Why Don’t We Do What We Know We Should Do?

Tick any of the following that apply:

  • I need to exercise more
  • I need to relax – stop getting so stressed
  • I need to eat more healthily
  • I need to spend more time with my spouse/partner/children
  • I need to take more holidays
  • I need to cut down on the beer/gin/red wine…

All of us will have ticked one – or several – of those metaphorical boxes. We all know that there are areas where we could improve our lives and/or our health without too much effort. So why don’t we?

Why do we stand on the bathroom scales and say, ‘Right. That’s it. Definitely this time. Well, as soon as I’ve got that meal and the holiday out of the way…’

I stumbled across an article in the Guardian the other week on behavioural economics, looking at the work of Professor Richard Thaler, President of the American Economic Association and a man who, by his own admission, ‘is a bit lazy, prone to procrastination and likes his booze.’

Thaler’s thesis is simple: people are full of weaknesses and failings – we’re not the cold, logical pragmatists that economic theory and best business practice would expect us to be.

He’s built an academic career not on assuming that we’re all perfect but that – in his own words – ‘everyone is as dumb as I am.’

Along with Cass Sunstein, Thaler published the international bestseller Nudge in 2008. He went on to work with David Cameron’s team after 2010 and Nudge is one of the reasons you might now be auto-enrolling your staff in a pension scheme. We know we should save more for our retirement but we don’t, so we need a nudge.

Thaler’s work shows that people consistently fail to do what’s in their own best interests: the key question for me is, do we do that in our business lives as well as in our personal lives?

Let’s take the simple ‘to-do’ list as an example. Do you:

  1. Make a list of what needs doing and start your day by scoring a few easy wins and crossing six or seven things off the list. Ten o’clock and you’ve knocked off half your list! Awesome…
  2. Or do you prioritise your list, then start with the most important thing – the item that would really make a difference to your business – and work at it until you’ve done it? Then you move on to the second priority…


We all know that the second one is the correct answer. It’s just about the oldest productivity tip in the book and it’s still completely relevant. But then again, all those ticks on your list are so seductive…

And as one of my old managers used to say, “Every big problem starts off as a small problem, Ed.” Absolutely right: so why don’t we nip small problems in the bud? Or chase late-payers more efficiently: or sort out the one member of the team that keeps us awake at night…

We all have things that we know we should do. As I’ve confessed before, I had no idea how much time I used to waste on LinkedIn until I started using Toggl.

But there are plenty of areas where I can still improve – so here’s my challenge and it’s in the best traditions of ‘nudge.’ Take just one area of your life where you’re not doing what you know you should be doing and answer the simple question, ‘Why?’

And then, just one day a week, for the rest of August, do something about it. Go for a walk, drink one less glass of wine, take your wife out on a date.

That’s ridiculously simple: but you’ll find that what was a conscious decision in August becomes an unconscious habit in September. All you need to do is give yourself a little nudge – and you’ll be better for it…


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